Magdalena Abakanowicz was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2005. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.
Dear Reader: Every writing of history consists of a selection of facts and interpretations of facts. Herodotus already discovered how much the truth depends on personal selection of seen, remembered, and approved. The brief history of Abakanowicz concerns her fight with circumstances and determination to materialize her vision. I have written it in English, a language in which I have a reduced vocabulary at my disposal. I thought, however, that this condition would allow me to say what I want avoiding translation. I am aware of the differences in meaning of the same word in every language and of the untranslatable context behind the word.
I need to write this book for myself in the same way I make art first of all for myself.
At the very beginning, women took care of me. There were several of them. They carried me in their arms, bathed and fed me. I remember their cheerful faces…But I also knew—and this was painful—that none of them was my mother.
Mother appeared rarely. She was magnificent. Tall with long hair piled up at the back of her head. Fragrant. She brought unease to my entire world: the woman grew silent, I became timid, almost frightened…Some years later, I learned and came to understand: she had passionately wanted a son. My birth was a terrible disappointment to her.
The house was old, large, with walls at least on meter thick, Gothic windows…Father occupied its western wing.
He would get up before dawn. On horseback, accompanied by his dogs, he rode over the whole estate. In winter and in season, he hunted…According to mother’s wish, father sat at the head of the table…He was the most important. People listened to him. They came for help and advice. Complying with the old custom, they kissed his hand.
That Place was in the very corner of a dark hall where, on the wall, there was a painted knight in armor with four horses. When silence and tranquility evoked an atmosphere of safety, I would bring over my objects, carefully selected among the grasses and the scrub. They wanted this from me. Slowly they came to life. Slowly they began to communicate with one another, and with me. They were moving independently, approaching one another, approaching me, retreating, again and again. This took time. It grew slowly, then faster, until it turned into a dance. I was inside it, taken over by the movement and the changing image. Obedient to the rhythm, united with them. Overcome by anticipation of what might happen with these living stones and branches.
I was nine. Suddenly, unexpectedly, German tanks appeared across the alley of alders at the edge of the park…We stood on the terrace, taken by surprise, watching…The Germans were looking at us, rigid like on parade, and suddenly they fired directly at us—but they probably missed on purpose.
I stood fearless, humiliated by this violence, helpless in the face of injustice and the impotence of my parents.
The days and nights changed…Father taught me to shoot, to clean and assemble weapons. At night, robbers or partisans, Russians or Poles, struck the windows, pounded the door of our house…They took what they needed, our clothes, our food…Forests were huge, there was space for them. The house ceased to be a shelter. With my sister, we slept completely dressed, listening to every noise. Uncertainty became the important companion of existence.
They came at night in 1943, drunk. They bashed at the door. Mother rushed to open it. One would open the door to everybody. She did not make it: they began to fire. A dum dum bullet tore her right elbow. It severed her arm from her shoulder, wounded her left hand. The capable wise arm suddenly became a piece of meat, separate on the floor. I looked at it with amazement. I had seen dead bodies, but they somehow had always preserved their completeness in front of others…We had to wait until the morning to go by carriage to the small town where there was a doctor.
She survived in spite of a terrible loss of blood and excruciating pain.
The front line approached. The Soviet Army—fighting the Germans, killing the landowners. Revolution…One day father ordered horses to be harnessed. We left for Warsaw. As our home and the countryside receded, I felt increasingly hollow. As if my insides had been removed and the exterior, unsupported by anything, shrank, losing its shape.
I do not remember the beginning, the firing from all sides, mother and the two of us lying in the street. Later everyone was running, we too. Suddenly I was alone in a crowd of people. Strange faces, I shouted: “Mama, Terenia!”
Impossible to turn back, only forward. Suddenly Terenia was there. She grabbed me: “Where is Mama?” The city closed. The deadly fight of Poles against Germans…At night the sky bright with flames; in the daytime a mushroom cloud of smoke. Germans were bombing and burning every building until the city became a heap of ruins.
They were bringing the wounded from Warsaw. The hospital was in the school and in some other barracks…I went there to help. There were neither anesthetics nor disinfectants…
A boy started talking to me as soon as they brought him in. He had a fever and flushed cheeks…A solider of the Home Army, he was 18. He talked to me as if he knew me, looked at me, and smiled as if I were someone close to him. I do not remember how many days passed, such long days, filled with words and dreams. When he died, he seemed very small: both his legs had been severed by shrapnel.
It was the late ‘40s. Right after the end of World War II and Soviet-imposed social revolution…In the Scouting Sport’s Club, we were four girls, training together…We had to share on pair of studded shoes. Our feet were different sizes, but there was no choice. I remember those shoes, light brown, like wings able to bring me to the podium. Once as I was finishing a run, the old threads snapped, the sole tore away. I fell down several meters from success.
Art? The way I made my strange objects was my private, nearly secret activity. How could this be related to art? I was raised in the mansion of my parents, among old paintings full of important messages from the past, and it seemed to me that my secret creativity did not match what was called art…Someone told me about an art college in the harbor city of Gdynia. Shall I apply?
At the entrance exam I sculpted a dragon out of clay. I remember the disgusted face of the professor…This face, it returned many times in my life, embodied in professional art critics, avant-garde organizers, those who know what art is and how it should look, those who decide what is good or bad. Disgusted face in front of my art.
In my attic room one wall was available…I nailed the paper to the wall and covered it with imaginary plants, fish, and butterflies. This space became like a big window to a different reality…I was in it. It surrounded me. Each painting had a hole for the light switch, which could not be covered. Nevertheless, I painted, constantly moved around in the small space, cracked and tore.
It was the ‘50s. During the nights, a caretaker at the Academy of Art let me in. I carried under my arm huge canvases patched from sheets three by four meters or larger and powder paints that dissolved in water. In an empty studio, I fixed the sheet to the wall.
I had to liberate myself of all that I had hid inside during the years of education, all that remained only in me…At dawn, I folded the painting. Not to be seen by anybody, with my “rainforest” under my arm I went home. I put everything under the bed.
Our wedding took place in a Catholic church. My father came to Warsaw a day before. We were alone in my room—a moment to exchange thoughts—but I could not keep myself from crying, devastated, with swollen eyes, unable to stop. No words. Father, this respectable, wise man, was listening to my spell of weeping: he may have understood the fear of an irreversible decision, the feat that responsibility before another person and for another person was the greatest, the feat of the unknown future, entangled with someone’s foreign thoughts, sentiments, decisions. Was I frightened of myself? Blinded by my tears, I was hiding my face in my hands. “But you can always divorce,” he said. I understood—nothing is eternal. I stopped crying. We never spoke about it again. I never divorced. My mother arrived later.
No space, no material, no practical reason to create…
I knew I could not wait to translate my imaginary forms into real shapes. I knew I had to create the material myself and then make our of it objects I could enter, which would be part of me and I would be part of them…Along the Vistula River one could find old discarded ropes. They already had their history. They became my material. I pulled out threads, washed and dyed them on our gas stove.
The fabric I made was stiff, its surface grew into reliefs similar to tree bark or animal fur.
I liked the fact that I was creating an object from its very beginning, from the outer shell to the total shape. I sewed several surfaces together to form a huge three-dimensional object. I could not see it in its entirety. I could only control it with my imagination and then examine it suspended in an exhibition room. Monumental, strong, soft, and erotic, these objects were once again my reality, a protest against the established definitions of sculpture. They were later called Abakans after my name, for nothing similar existed in art.
…São Paulo Biennial
Was I obsessed by the necessity to make huge objects, which had no chance of being placed among trends in modern art? Which didn’t fit in my lift or staircase. Was it masochism or an inner awareness that I can only follow the vocabulary directed by my nerves and intestines, by the brain and the stomach? I knew there were no drawers in my mind, in any mind, separating intellect, instinct, the unconscious and subconscious…I had to go my way. Deliberately disobedient. Sometimes frightened of myself…My works made the trip to the São Paulo Biennial without me…No passport, no money, no permission to go. I was at home, empty, as if absent…When I learned that I had received the Biennial prize, I found it an offence, a mistake, a misunderstanding. An award for a protest seemed very banal…I was sitting and crying, weeping and complaining to Jan. I could not accept such approval. Finally, it was explained to me that I was rewarded for my discoveries.
I looked upon the boy who had agreed to be cast in plaster. My constant dream about large scale was suddenly embodied in a landscape consisting of shell-like human shapes, negatives of the bulk. A countless quantity, gray to the horizon…
I cast the front of the boy. I was sweating and fearful as I removed the plaster from his body, simultaneously plucking the hair from his arms and legs.
I observed the body liberated from the face, free to demonstrate, to express things not seen before. “A face can lie, the body cannot,” one of the visitors to my Paris exhibition told me while looking at 80 Seated Backs. I realized that by eliminating expected parts of the body, I was gaining a stronger articulation of the remaining ones. They take possession of the personality…I bought old burlap sacks used for collection of roots or potatoes. Dirty, tattered, they had their own history, an important contribution to the role I gave them…I fixed the sack fabric with glue and resin…
Sleepless nights of uncertainty—I would get up, look at, pace around this untamed stranger, this intruder. But I wanted him. I had to arrive with him at an agreement without which we would have remained strangers to each other. I finally came to understand that he did not want to become a starlet, that in a series of figures he would become the span of a bridge, that his fate was to be a member of a crows as I was.
Jerusalem: I went there as if out of myself, my heart on my sleeve. Through incredibly thorough inspections, body searches, suitcases emptied, all their contents examined and touched.
I am to make a sculpture for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem…I have brought no proposals—they are born on the spot. Every space has its radiance, meaningful, like the smell, like a sound one should listen to. A stone desert all around. Stone is like a sign—I begin to feel what I should do…Seven big stone disks were born in my imagination. But how to do this? Were is the stone, where is the money, where are those who would execute it?
Mitzpe Ramon is an enormous mysterious crater, but not of a volcano…Between Bersheva and Elat, close to the crater, I found Moshe Ela, a Jewish Kurd from a family of seven brothers who owned the local quarry of limestone that had been used for building since Biblical times.
The mammoth, 12-ton disks that were to become the sculpture for the Israel Museum were cut by Bedouins with a pneumatic drill from the layers of sedimented limestone which formed the surface of the desert in this particular place…The surfaces of the disks were alive and uneven…They show the countless sea creatures that, over millions of years, had formed the rock.
I felt need in Japan, but I also needed Japan. Every visit was rich in meaningful events, encounters with unknown sensibilities, and understandings that happen totally beyond any language.
After my first two visits came my retrospective. There was Naoko Miyamoto, wise, beautiful woman. How much I appreciate her devotion to my art. Our work together began in 1990 with my exhibition in Tokyo at the Sezon Museum of Art and continued through the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga, Art Tower Mito, and the Hiroshima City Museum of Art. It was a big show with Abakans, War Games, Wheel and Rope, Incarnations, Hoofed Mammal Heads, and Crowds.
I visited Hiroshima several times…Its tragedy reminded me of what war had done in my county…Fater my exhibition there, 6,241 inhabitants filed a request with the city authorities asking them to commission me to create a sculpture for Hiroshima. We agreed that there would be 40 figures…
Their headless torsos face the city. There is complete silence there. It is said that this hill within the city was the site to which people escaped from the heat of the atomic horro.
Where to escape from the “day-to-day?” Imagination—it carried me, was faithful. For me, the only space in which I could forget the real and be as if on a flying carpet. Alone or with my works. Like at the Metropolitan Roof Garden in 1999, over Central Park, confronted with the Manhattan architecture and the region of clouds above. No weight is involved, no borders exist. We were, I and my art, enchanted there, independent, free like a sound.
The ”flying carpet” took me over Paris in 1982 when my exhibition arrived at the Musée d’art modern de la ville de Paris, an event that was not possible for political reasons, but happened nonetheless.
The “flying carpet” brought me in 1971 to Los Angeles, to the Pasadena Art Museum with my great improvised show—unreal, enormous. My first show in America…
It brought me recently in 2002 to my largest group of figures, the iron Unrecognized. Among them, I feel as if inside myself.
Imagination allows me to believe in my art. Thanks to its power, I work on new prospects. The large group of 100 cast iron figures, each nine feet tall, for Chicago. “Agora,” that old Greek word describing a meeting place in town—that will have to compete with the tension of this extraordinary city in order to be understood…And then in Warsaw, seven acres of wild park in the middle of the capital, which I intended to divide by forms built on the spot out of concrete…
More lasting than life, silent, are the “spaces of experiences, to contemplate” that I leave behind, which are always awaiting me as my territory to escape to…
These excerpts from Abakanowicz’s unpublished autobiography, consisting of 250 pages of text and photographs, were written between 1982 and 2005.